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Primary Day: Five storylines to watch in Indiana, Ohio and North Carolina

Voters in Indiana, Ohio and North Carolina head to the polls today -- the first major primary day of the 2010 election season. Below are five storylines to keep an eye on in that trio of states as the votes get counted tonight.

1. Ohio 'Mo or No: Ohio Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher has been one of the biggest disappointments of this election so far for Senate Democrats. He has struggled badly to distance himself from badly underfunded Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner in the primary and has woefully underperformed in his own fundraising as well.

But, a Quinnipiac poll released Monday showed Fisher with a 43 percent to 23 percent edge over Brunner, suggesting that the lieutenant governor was headed to a relatively pedestrian win today.

A convincing victory -- along the margins that the Q poll suggests -- could give Fisher a bit of badly-needed momentum as he moves into the general election against former Rep. Rob Portman (R).

Despite Fisher's struggles, polling puts him even or slightly ahead of Portman -- a trend line that has to be encouraging for Democrats. Fisher needs to show that he has fixed the problems that plagued his campaign for much of 2009 and the best way to do that is to put a big number on the board tonight.

2. Wither DeMint: South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint (R) has drawn massive amounts of national media attention for his willingness to cross his party leadership when it comes to endorsing in contested primaries.

DeMint's "go it alone" approach to primaries gets its first real test today as conservative state Sen. Marlin Stutzman seeks to unseat establishment-backed favorite Dan Coats, a former senator.

Expecting Stutzman to win after the DeMint endorsement may be too high a bar -- after all, Stutzman was dead in the water before DeMint endorsed him last week -- but if he finishes third (behind Coats and former Rep. John Hostettler) it won't be a great moment for the South Carolina Republican.

DeMint has a handful of tests coming up over the next few months as underdogs like California state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore and Weld County prosecutor Ken Buck face voters in primaries. Poor finishes by one (or both) men will reinforce the widespread belief among establishment Republicans that there is more smoke than fire when it comes to DeMint's political operation and ability to deliver.

That said, DeMint was a very early backer of former Florida state House Speaker Marco Rubio and we all know how that turned out.

3. Incumbents in trouble: There has been much debate in political circles about just how strong the anti-incumbent sentiment is out in the country. That theory will get a good test today as two Republican House Members in Indiana -- Mark Souder and Dan Burton -- face serious primary challenges.

Souder, who has a reputation in Republican circles for running less-than-stellar campaigns, is the more endangered of the two as car dealer Bob Thomas has dumped more than $200,000 of his own money into the race.

And, Souder appeared to signal that he would definitely not seek re-election in 2012 in an interview with political analyst Brian Howey -- an unforced error that Thomas quickly pounced on.

Thomas -- like many Republican primary challengers -- has also scored points in hitting Souder for his vote in favor of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) in late 2008.

Burton, who has held the 5th district since 1982, is no stranger to serious primary races; in 2008 he won the Republican nod with just 52 percent of the vote. This cycle there are a number of well-credentialed challengers including Brose McVey, who ran unsuccessfully in the 7th district several cycles ago, former state Rep. Luke Messer and 2008 primary candidate John McGoff. Burton's saving grace may be that the field looking to oust him is so big that he will be able to win with a relatively small share of the Republican electorate.

If either Souder (more likely) or Burton (less likely) go down, it will draw significant national attention to the anti-incumbent storyline. And, with Utah Sen. Bob Bennett (R) fighting for his political life at the state's convention this weekend, we could be looking at a major emerging narrative if either Souder or Burton fall.

4. Getting the "right" nominee: There are a handful of House races in Indiana, North Carolina and Ohio where Republicans believe that the result of today's primaries will determine whether or not the seat is competitive in the fall.

In Ohio, Republicans see businessman Jim Renacci as their strongest candidate to compete against Rep. John Boccieri (D) but he faces a real fight in the form of two-time nominee Matt Miller. State Sen. Bob Gibbs is regarded as the preferred Republican nominee against Rep. Zack Space (D) in the 18th but that, too, is something of a jump ball for the Republican nod.

In Indiana, national Republicans regard cardiologist Larry Bucshon as their strongest nominee but he faces seven(!) other GOP candidates in the open 8th district race. North Carolina's 8th district, which is currently held by Rep. Larry Kissell (D), is seen as a longshot Republican opportunity but only if someone other than contractor Tim D'Annunzio wins the party's nomination, according to an informed party source.

Establishment Republicans, particularly on the House side, have been loathe to wade into primary fights out of fear that such involvement could anger tea party activists already chafing under the yoke of the party's mainstream leaders. Today's results will validate whether that was the right strategy or not.

5. A Test in the Tarheel State: National Democrats have insisted since the start of the 2010 election cycle that Sen. Richard Burr (R) is entirely beatable. And yet, they struggled for months to recruit someone who they believed to be a top-tier candidate into the race.

Eventually former state Sen. Cal Cunningham, who had turned down the race once, decided to run but he joined a field that already included Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and attorney Ken Lewis.

Cunningham's late start may be too much for him to overcome as polling suggests Marshall, who has been in her current post since 1996, will be the top Democratic vote-getter today.

At issue is whether Cunningham (or Lewis) can keep Marshall under the 40 percent threshold needed to avoid a June 22 runoff. National Democrats believe that additional six weeks would give Cunningham the time he needs to overcome Marshall's name identification edge although his poor fundraising over the first three months of the year complicates that notion.

If Marshall wins today, watch to see how the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee reacts. It's tough -- make that impossible -- for them to argue that Marshall was their choice all along but if polls show her within single digits of Burr it will also be hard for the DSCC to walk away from one of their few opportunities to play offense against a Republican incumbent.

By Chris Cillizza  |  May 4, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Morning Fix  
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Comments

I'm not sure DeMint is a story here. He's clearly supporting candidates on principle, and relatively late into the campaign season (Rubio notwithstanding), so his endorsements seem more like ways of driving continuing press of a conservative rebirth and the Tea Party movement than of actually creating demonstrable electoral results. Besides, principled endorsements are a win-win -- either they get elected or provide an "I told you so" moment when the other guy (Dem or GOP) fails at something.

Posted by: TheGlobalizer | May 4, 2010 5:33 PM | Report abuse

Poor Chris: such a propagandist for the Dems he forgets the Hawaii race. He will not talk about the Burns race in the corrupt Murtha district. And oh boy, do not ever talk about the fact that it is Dems in about 90 districts that really are in trouble in upcoming primary and Nov. races. Why not just join the DNC Chris???

Posted by: phillyfanatic | May 4, 2010 3:00 PM | Report abuse

FYI allenridge -- there is no consensus who TPers are, other than they SAY they are 'fiscal conservatives.' I doubt if most of them even know what that means.

But I do know that many of them are unaware that Medicare is a federal program, and that when told that, sometimes decide they aren't TPers anymore.

This is not a coherent group. This is just a disparate bunch of people angry about different things, anger being the one thing they have in common. And perhaps a sense of entitlement.

Posted by: drindl
----------------------------------------
Is it the same anger that O has for the Jonas brothers?

Posted by: leapin | May 4, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

Chris - you are a bit hard on Lee Fisher in Ohio. His fundraising has been a problem, but it looks as though he will win handily today against another statewide (if badly underfunded) official and has stayed even with Portman in the polls. A disappointment is someone who loses when he/she should have won.

Posted by: jdi123 | May 4, 2010 12:52 PM | Report abuse

I just cast my vote for Jennifer Brunner for US Senate in Ohio. I find Lee Fisher to be singularly uninspiring, but of course I will vote for him in November if he wins the nomination, as I fully expect him to do. I really wish Ms. Brunner had stayed with being Secretary of State, where she has done a superb job. Since she's been in office, Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) has had elections that have been notable only for their lack of problems of any kind. We have Jennifer Brunner to thank for that. I firmly believe it was former Secretary of State Ken Blackwell's plan to always have Cuyahoga be in some sort of stir on election day since Cuyahoga is the Democratic stronghold in the state. 2004 was a total disgrace, not just here but all around the state. Ken Blackwell should be in prison. I deeply regret that the S of S office will almost certainly return to the Republicans in the fall, though I believe Jon Husted, former Speaker of the House and likely Republican candidate, is an honorable person.

Posted by: jothomp | May 4, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

2. Jim DeMint seems to think he's doing a good thing by supporting purists only to the Republican party. This strategy can work well in conservative states, it is not a 50 state strategy that will be successful. I can understand DeMint endorsing Stutzman in Indiana. I cannot, however, see why he's endorsed Buck in Colorodo. I like Jane Norton and think she will walk away with the election if she gets the R nomination. You got to think a bit about winning. Before DeMint gets conservatives excited about going to the polls in a losing effort, he'd better think about "can this Republican win in this state?" before the endorsement.

5. I think Burr is in great shape for reelection. Cunningham has been on the air for a bit, but his fundraising has been less than impressive. He's racked in just over $400,000 while Marshall collected around $350,000 in the 1st qtr. Burr collected around $1,200,000. Burr hasn't already had to spend much out of it like Cunningham and Marshall, either. The NDSC will come in on behalf of the winner, but because they have too. Burr has lots of money in his campaign coffers. Also, Cunningham nor Marshall may not hit the 40% mark today, which means they compete in a run-off on 06/22. More time for Burr to store more money while the Democrats continually have to spend. By the way, I read some of your comments that Burr campaigns as a moderate. I have never noticed that. Burr is a strong fiscal conservative who always votes with the tax payer, almost in the mold of Jesse Helms. He's not extreme on social issues, however. Burr is a supporter and voted for stem cell research, for example. But he's very well funded and is a strong conservative fiscally & defense wise.

Posted by: reason5 | May 4, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

I'm wondering if the anti-incumbent fever isn't solely a Republican malady. I'm not seeing much evidence of it on the Democratic side.

Posted by: margaretmeyers | May 4, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

Chris! Great post, as usual. I heard that you came down with some kind of fever over the weekend, but it sounds like you've bounced back- good on you!

Posted by: steelers_rule123 | May 4, 2010 10:27 AM | Report abuse

I still think momentum will pick up for Lee Fisher (assuming he wins the primary) once Ohio Democrats' loyalties are no longer split between him and Jennifer Brunner. Brunner's most vocal supporters are doing all they can to get across the point that Fisher is the Antichrist in their last desparate attempt to push Brunner toward a victory in the primary, but they'll still end up settling behind Fisher rather than risk Rob Portman winning the general. Fisher hasn't shown himself to be especially proficient at gathering momentum or running a good campaign, but once the state Democratic party solidifies behind him as the candidate, he'll have an easier go of it.

On the topic of social issues in the Tea Party, the group may not have any specific social issues as part of its platform, but individual candidates associated with it certainly cotton to specific social issues. Here in my U.S. House district, all the Republicans are trying to claim some sort of allegiance to the Tea Party, but I recently took a look at the website of the one who seems to have the most Tea Party support and it's got exponentially more pro-life stuff than anti-government stuff.

Posted by: GJonahJameson | May 4, 2010 10:22 AM | Report abuse

FYI allenridge -- there is no consensus who TPers are, other than they SAY they are 'fiscal conservatives.' I doubt if most of them even know what that means.

But I do know that many of them are unaware that Medicare is a federal program, and that when told that, sometimes decide they aren't TPers anymore.

This is not a coherent group. This is just a disparate bunch of people angry about different things, anger being the one thing they have in common. And perhaps a sense of entitlement.

Posted by: drindl | May 4, 2010 10:10 AM | Report abuse

jhpbriton, thanks. Was turnout light, moderate, or heavy?
Is your circle of friends who oppose Burton diverse, either geographically, throughout IN, or socially, if local to you? I am not criticizing, I just want you to give us more information so that we know the basis of your prediction.

We here, readers of 'The Fix', want to be the first to know.

allenridge, I have assumed that you were not driven by social issues, but it seems that many TEApeople are, at least here in Texas. Debra Medina, who ran for Guv, a TEAperson, liked teaching "creationism" in the biology program.

Posted by: mark_in_austin | May 4, 2010 10:00 AM | Report abuse

Today will test the strength o the Tea Party movement and go a long way to determine whether the GOP can sweep Congress this fall. The GOP could be in big trouble if far-right primary voters select Tea Party candidates as their nominees for the fall, to go along with the increasingly hostile political landscape for Republicans.

http://www.political-buzz.com/

Posted by: parkerfl1 | May 4, 2010 7:44 AM
===============================

......parkerfl1......you mean like far-right pro-choice Tea Party candidates like Scott Brown who won Ted Kennedy's old seat?

FYI libs......the Tea Party is made up of ordinary Americans who are fiscal conservatives and who are NOT into these "social issues" that the libs are into........

Posted by: allenridge | May 4, 2010 9:40 AM | Report abuse

Voted this morning in Hamilton County (Carmel, IN). Burton is going down today. Dr. John McGoff will win a squeaker primary.

This is not a Tea Party rant. McGoff came within 10K votes out of 200K cast in a one-one primary vote in May 2008. Only reason Burton held on was the high number of Republicans that voted in the Democratic primary (Hillary v Barack). Burton is ROTJ (retired on the job). Time for Dan to spend quality time with his family and grandchildren.

Posted by: jhpbriton | May 4, 2010 9:10 AM | Report abuse

"Wither DeMint"


Chris -- do you mean 'Whither DeMint" as in, to what end?

or

"Wither, DeMint' as a curse or command?


I favor the second one myself, but I think you mean the first.

Posted by: drindl | May 4, 2010 8:34 AM | Report abuse

I think the primaries today won't be as big a factor in November as they will be in May and June for the other primaries yet to come. If the insurgent GOP nominees win in significant numbers it will bolster the Tea-party money people to give more and to widen their targets. This is in the end would be good for Democrats IMO. That being said, I think the Tea-party is going to have a bad day today.

In NC, Cunningham has been gaining steam and he may just pull the upset off, but if not I think Marshall would have a good shot of taking Burr. Burr ran as a moderate and has been anything but since he has been in the Senate. On top of that because Burr campaigned as a moderate he is getting no love from the Tea-Party extremists. Basically, he has lost the middle and the far right. However, he may still get elected on a GOP wave if unemployment doesn't improve significantly in the next 5 months.

Posted by: AndyR3 | May 4, 2010 8:23 AM | Report abuse

the beautiful thing about those drones,
innocent villagers never even see them
coming... hahaha...

bring our troops home!

a democratic majority in both houses!
a democratic administration in the
white house, and the wars just grow
and grow and grow!!!

it's not about the tea party

it's about promising to end the wars,
and help the poor,
and doing neither!!

Posted by: simonsays1 | May 4, 2010 8:09 AM | Report abuse

Today will test the strength o the Tea Party movement and go a long way to determine whether the GOP can sweep Congress this fall. The GOP could be in big trouble if far-right primary voters select Tea Party candidates as their nominees for the fall, to go along with the increasingly hostile political landscape for Republicans.

http://www.political-buzz.com/

Posted by: parkerfl1 | May 4, 2010 7:44 AM | Report abuse

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